Saola Conservation in Central Vietnam
The Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) is a large wild ox whose global range comprises only the Annamite Mountains of central Vietnam and Lao PDR (Laos). This unique animal, first described by scientists in 1993, was at one point thought to be related to goats, but recent research has identified it as a "primitive" member of the same evolutionary lineage as wild cattle. Listed as Critically Endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the 85 kg (200 lb) Saola has yet to be seen in the wild by researchers, and its global population is currently estimated at 250-300. The primary threat to Saola is hunting, chiefly from incidental by-catch in snares set for other animals, but also from professional hunters interested in the animal's horns as decorative objects. Little is known of the Saola's tracks and signs, distribution, abundance, habitat use, diet, behavior, and genetics. What information that does exist comes primarily from indigenous peoples living within its range. Since its description, the Saola has rapidly become a flagship species for Vietnamese biodiversity and conservation initiatives.
Because so little is known of the Saola's numbers and natural history, field-based research efforts are urgently needed to collect data on the species' distribution and behavior and to develop reliable methods for detecting and monitoring its presence. Scientists from the CBC are collaborating with World Wildlife Fund's Greater Mekong Programme and Vietnam's Forest Protection Department on the first and as yet only initiative researching and implementing Saola conservation measures. This work is being carried out in the rugged, mountainous landscape lying along the border of central Vietnam's Quang Nam and Thua Thien-Hue provinces, an area recognized as the global priority landscape for Saola conservation.
The project has identified four core areas within the landscape, each of which has a relatively high probability that Saola currently live in them. Beginning in March of 2008 the project will implement an intensive, six-month long camera-trapping initiative in these high probability Saola areas. Camera-trapping, the deployment of remotely-triggered flash cameras in areas difficult to access, has been effective regionally and nationally in detecting the presence of secretive and rare mammals such as tigers. This is currently the best technique for determining Saola distribution since there are as yet no descriptions of tracks, dung, scrapings, or other markings and field signs that can be unequivocally attributed to Saola. Analyzing tissue samples collected from trophies will allow researchers to estimate genetic diversity and the extent of population fragmentation across the landscape.
In addition to camera-trapping initiatives, interviews with local forest users will be important to gather additional information on Saola occurrence and possible field signs, as well as information on hunting pressures. Although not specifically targeted, Saola can be caught and killed by snares set out for other, smaller animals. To be effective, Saola conservation efforts must address traditional hunting practices and other forest resource by local people and incorporate the needs, traditions, and aspirations of their communities, largely composed of ethnic minorities. These issues will be addressed through integrating maps of Saola distribution and natural resource harvest patterns with local forest management traditions to develop sustainable, community-based forest management.
This project will also benefit other unique organisms that live in the central Annamites. The Saola is one of a group of poorly known, endemic ungulates restricted to the Annamite Mountains, including the large-antlered muntjac (Muntiacus vuquangensis) and the Roosevelts' muntjac species complex (M. rooseveltorum, M. truongsonensis, and others). The Annamite Range is the region's dominant geographic upland formation, running 1,200 km along the Vietnam-Lao border and into southern Vietnam. Peaks range from 1,000 m up to 2,200 m; evergreen forests cover the wetter eastern slopes and evergreen and semi-evergreen forests the drier western slopes. In addition to these large hoofed mammals, the Annamites support many endemic primates, birds, amphibians, orchids, and conifers, suggesting that the region has experienced a unique evolutionary trajectory. In late 2007 two new protected areas designed specifically to conserve Saola and their habitats were established in Quang Nam and Thua Thien-Hue provinces. These efforts will help to conserve not just the Saola but the globally significant plant and animal communities of which they are a part.